This ought to have been a great year for Rafael Nadal, but now that he's pulled out of the U.S. Open in order to rest and rehabilitate his knees (he has chronic tendinitis in both of them) 2012 has become, like 2009, a year of travail, hardship, and sobering portents.
The outstanding — and to Rafa fans, alarming — difference between then and now, though, is that Nadal missed just one Grand Slam event in 2009. This year he's going to be absent from two of the five major events, having also pulled out of the recent Olympic Games.
This is a devastating blow for the 11-time Grand Slam champion who, until about midway through 2011, seemed almost certain to equal or surpass his older rival Roger Federer's Grand Slam record of 17 major singles titles (At 31, Federer is almost five full years older than Nadal). This latest bout of injury radically alters the nature of the conversation, with one question looming prominently: "How many tournaments does Nadal have left in those increasingly un-cooperative knee?"
One thing that is already clear is that Nadal has had to pay a different, and incrementally higher, price for his frailties in this, a year that he had hoped, with reason, would be one of resurgence and restoration.
Novak Djokovic went on a remarkable tear in 2011, rudely unseating Nadal from the throne he occupied as the No. 1 player while compiling a 6-0 record against him, including a four-set victory in the U.S. Open final. The Serbian star turned the game on its ear, but it was impossible to tell if his dominance was a tidal surge destined to recede, or an unexpected, permanent shake-up.
Although Nadal also was beaten by Djokovic in the first Grand Slam final of 2012 (the Australian Open final was the longest Grand Slam final in tennis history at 5:53, and one of the most bitterly and closely contested), he left Melbourne with new hope, fresh ideas, and greater confidence that Djokovic would not be able to manhandle him the way he had in 2011.
But that optimism was accompanied and undermined — if never compromised — by Nadal's ongoing struggle with tendinitis in his knees, an injury that first became public shortly after Nadal lost for the first time at the French Open, while he was bidding to collect his fifth consecutive title. He was beaten on that occasion in the fourth round by Robin Soderling. Given Soderling's level at the time, the defeat of Nadal was unexpected but not inexplicable. Thus, speculation about Nadal's knees (already a past time among certain insiders) seemed like so much excuse-making. But the severity of Rafa's condition became manifest to all a few weeks later, when Nadal announced that he would be unable to defend the Wimbledon crown he'd wrenched out of Roger Federer's grip in 2008.
An injury that prevents a Grand Slam champion from defending his title is of an entirely different order of magnitude than the aches and pains that are part of the cost of doing business in big-time athletics, and particularly in sports where there is as much impact and jarring of bones and muscles as in tennis. Starting in that summer of 2009, tendinitis became a new, consistent, sometimes irritating thread in the Nadal narrative (I say "irritating" because speculations on the role played by injury in a loss in any match that is completed tends to take credit away from the winner, and adds an unquantifiable element to the story of the match).
In what now seems like an omen, Nadal had to quit the Miami Masters 1000 at the semifinal stage (giving Andy Murray a win by walkover) because of the aggravated condition of his left knee. He said at the time, “I started to have problems on the knee before Indian Wells. But that problem [was] not limiting me to play at 100 percent. So I played in Indian Wells with the normal conditions, playing in good shape physically. Here, [it] is different.”
The good news for Nadal is that the tour then moved to the softer, gentler red-clay surface in Europe, where Nadal began to reverse the hex Djokovic had him under. By the time the French Open rolled around, a scant three months ago, Nadal had banked back-to-back wins over his Serbian rival in high- value Master events. And when Nadal subdued Djokovic in a ragged, rain-cursed French Open final, he had real reason to feel terrific going into Wimbledon. The tweaks he'd made to counter Djokovic's superiority seemed to be working, and his game has always matched up well with Federer's.
Nadal was upset in the second round at Wimbledon by Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic. As bitter a pill as that was to swallow, it suggested that Nadal might benefit from an unanticipated, extra rest of nearly two weeks before he began his quest to defend his Olympic gold medal. But Nadal watchers knew that Nadal frequently consulted with doctors and had gone for multiple MRI's while still in London, and that could hardly be a good sign. In the big picture, the loss to Rosol (who, like Soderling, played a superb match against Nadal) was the least of Nadal's worries.
You know the rest. Nadal pulled out of the Olympics (he also had to give up the high honor of serving as Spain's flag bearer), citing lack of proper rest for his knees. Later, he pulled out of the North American summer Masters events, because he said he was not sufficiently recovered. Now, who knows? It's hard to imagine Nadal traveling to Asia to play on hard courts, and the indoor season in Europe that follows is just too far out to contemplates — as well as a segment during which Nadal under performs.
The most disturbing thing to me about all this is that you can't just blame Nadal's tendinitis on excessive play on hard courts. He had good recovery time after pulling out of Miami, and essentially broke down after a typically brilliant clay-court tour in Europe. The history he's accumulated also indicates that this is not a problem that will go away, not unless Nadal takes a truly extended break (say, six months to a year) or drastically limits his play with long breaks between selected events.
What if Nadal decided that the only way to extend his career would be to avoid hard courts altogether? Should he decide to play only on clay and grass, how would the ATP handle his role as a part-timer?
We saw that the ATP had no mercy when it came to Bjorn Borg's wish to play more selectively; would a hard-line stance by the ATP (rules are rules; if you don't meet your mandated commitments, you will pay a price) drive Nadal out of the game altogether? One thing is for certain, Nadal could keep a very respectable ranking playing only exclusively on clay in Europe. It would certainly be in intriguing and unprecedented decision, as well as a wholly justifiable one.
But if he went that route, Nadal would not contend for the top ranking, nor appear at two majors (Australian and U.S. Opens). Given that for a player like Nadal, the career is all about Grand Slam wins and all else is trimmings, those handicaps are irrelevant. Playing two majors a year is better than having to quit with busted up knees and playing none. Ever again.
It's not just legitimate but almost obligatory to ask these question now, in order to prepare for the future. Unfortunately, the shape of that future is impossible to determine at the best of times, and never more so than in the matter of Rafael Nadal and his famous and now famously unreliable knees.